St. John’s Boys Experience Kayaking as Part of a ‘Wild Year’


 On Tuesday, July 21, a group of boys got to experience kayaking for the first time ever. Through Wild Year, a program that encourages stewardship, education and recreation in area parks, some residents of the St. John’s Residence for Boys are getting to explore local recreation areas in positive, productive and fun ways. With a collaboration with the Community Boathouse, the boys spent some time helping improve the kayak launch, followed by a first-time paddle along Jamaica Bay.

On Tuesday, two groups of boys from the St. John’s Residence in Rockaway and another based in Bayside, met in the morning and afternoon at Bay Breeze Park for a day of lending a helping hand, learning, and having some fun on the water. The boys were given a task—help redo the site’s ramp to make it safer and more accessible for everyone. The ramp to access the bay had consisted of wood and large stones to hold it in place. To improve it, about 150 bags of gravel were delivered to the site from Breezy Point Lumber. Along with volunteers from the Boathouse and St. John’s staff, the boys helped clean out garbage around the area, smooth out the site and poured the gravel along the ramp so a smooth blue mat could line the path to the water, creating an easier, safer and wider access point for the kayakers. After an hour of hard work, the boys got to play. Volunteers from the Boathouse educated the boys on the best kayaking practices and what to do once on the water. Then they took to the bay and became acquainted with kayaking.

“It was very satisfying to see people experiencing something like that for the first time and it was an opportunity that they don’t get often. The whole purpose is to show them other options and get them to see the brighter side of life, while helping the community in the process,” Rick Horan, who heads the Community Boathouse said. “The Community Boathouse was very happy to be asked to be a part of this. We had a full contingent of volunteers that showed up to help with whatever was needed, especially on the water.”

The experience was part of a larger program that aims to give youth like those at St. John’s, a year of adventure in urban parks. Wild Year, sparked by an idea during a community advisory meeting with the St. John’s Residence in 2019, was made possible through the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy (JBRPC) and funding from the Achelis & Bodman Foundation. The program, managed by Elizabeth Stoehr, takes the boys to different park areas where they participate in stewardship by helping with a community service task, education by learning more about wildlife, park areas and even career opportunities, and recreation by getting to enjoy a fun activity in the park. The program is designed as a milestone program with goals, which will culminate in a graduation in December, and the possibility of receiving incentives such as cash rewards or gift cards for good performance. “We not only want to provide them with the experience, but we want to help them build skills and introduce them to career possibilities and reinforce them positively, so that they know when they do good work like this, they can be rewarded for it,” Alex Zablocki of JBRPC said.

This pilot program was set to begin in April but was delayed due to coronavirus. However, the program officially launched last month with a virtual orientation, followed by a trip to the American Ball Park and Sunset Cove in Broad Channel. About 12 boys participated in a cleanup along the shoreline of the ballfield. For the educational portion, they learned about horseshoe crabs, local birds and the harmful effects of marine debris on the environment. For recreation, the boys then went on a walking tour of neighboring Sunset Cove, where they learned about the restoration work that took place in the area to make the park possible.

Tuesday’s kayaking day came as a special request by the boys. “After polling the young men, who are between 14 to 18, they all said that they wanted to go kayaking. None of them had ever been kayaking before,” Zablocki said. As an activity that could be done with social distancing in mind, it was the perfect choice for the next program.

Ideas for the next project are still in the works, but Zablocki says there are many possibilities. JBRPC recently joined the Billion Oyster Project (BOP) and NY State Parks to install Queens’ first BOP Community Oyster Reef in Bayswater Point State Park. Through Wild Year, the boys may participate in a program to monitor the reef, so they can learn about oysters, followed by fishing in the bay. Some other ideas are hiking around and learning the military history of Fort Tilden, or bike riding around Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn.

“We want to give these boys varying experiences. The world is our oyster and there are so many varying places to go around Jamaica Bay and Rockaway,” Zablocki said. “You can go surfing, kayaking, hike a military installation, survey an osprey platform. You can’t do this anywhere else in New York City. This potential has never been unlocked for them and we truly want to them to experience a ‘wild year.”

 By Katie McFadden

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